I have vivid memories of the high school English teacher who ruined writing for me. I don’t remember her name, but she was tall and slender, and she wore flowing, button-down blouses and kept money and slips of paper tucking into her left-shoulder bra strap. I cringed every time she reached behind those shirt buttons and pulled something out.
She was propper and groomed and articulate and full of herself. Her criticism of my writing was consistent. It wasn’t about punctuation or grammar. She corrected what I still remember to this day to be stylistic differences. She only knew one way to write, and if my classmates and I wanted good grades, we had to conform. I couldn’t do that. I wasn’t an idealist or full of confidence and rebellion. I just couldn’t write her way. I lacked the talent. So I dropped out of advanced English down to regular English, and I spent the next couple of decades or so convinced I couldn’t write and feeling traumatized by rare glimpses of money tucked under bra straps.
Did you ever wonder how your alcoholism has impacted your children? Or your parents?
I have wondered. I have forgiven myself for most of the repercussions of my drinking, but the impact that this family disease had on my kids is what keeps me up at night. Some of us are lucky enough to have time to address the pain and trauma. Others are not so lucky.
Just because I no longer drink doesn’t mean I am free. This will be my fifth consecutive sober Christmas, and I still wear the chains I forged in my drinking life. They are lighter now. They no longer define me, nor do they prevent me from living the holiday season with a joyful heart. But I can still feel enough weight from the chains that confined me in addiction to serve as a reminder. I am reminded that alcohol is a diabolical poison not meant for human consumption. But I am also reminded of time lost and mistakes made in the indelible ink of holidays spent with a young family. The future is bright, but I’ll never be free of the weight of the mistakes of the past.
The ghosts are all around to remind me. The stockings hang from our fireplace as they have since each of our four children was born. Like our kids, they are ready and sparkling and full of promise. And I can’t help but remember the times my selfish drinking left the promises unfulfilled. The lights twinkle and the decorations adorn, and it all reminds me of both festive times and regrettable memories of my disease trumping the potential for peace and love. The chances are all around me this time of year. Chances to make new memories, but also chances to remember the past lest it be repeated.
Then there are the pictures.
Last week, we took our daughter to college to start her freshman year, but that’s not what this post is about. Not really. It’s about something much bigger than our sadness swirled with excitement. But for context, here’s what happened when we dropped her off.
The drive from Denver to Minnesota was uneventful. I don’t think my daughter noticed how much I stared at her sitting behind me through my sunglasses using the rearview mirror. I don’t think she understood why I got so upset with our son, who was loud, waking her when she fell asleep on one of her other brother’s shoulders. With the exception of my wife, Sheri, I don’t think any of them understood how hard it was for me to keep pushing forward knowing every mile we covered increased the distance that would ultimately reside between me and my beloved first-born child.
I sat crouched in the woods behind my house as the driving rain continued to lash my thoroughly drenched body. The temperature had dropped into the 40s, and I wasn’t wearing a jacket because I hadn’t planned to spend any time outside. I was drunk. Beyond drunk, really. I was in blackout territory as the lights of my teenage memory flickered in and out.